Boris Johnson has taken care to appoint no designated deputy. Dominic Raab is First Secretary of State, but isn’t second in the formal pecking order. Rishi Sunak holds that position, but not Raab’s title. Michael Gove has the cross-departmental responsibilities associated with a number two, but is junior not only to both in the Cabinet rankings, but also to Priti Patel.
As an exercise in divide and rule among those he’s apppointed, this division of responsibilities is a Prime Ministerial masterclass. But while it may be well-crafted for a Government that aims to level up Britain over five years, it is being found wanting for dealing with a crisis on the scale of the present one – at least when Johnson, who we hope soon returns to rumbustious form in full, is ill, and now in hospital.
The Prime Minister has agreed four Cabinet implementation committees to tackle the effects of the Coronavirus: Raab, Sunak, Gove and Matt Hancock chair one each. These are, as it were, committees that plan the war: how to get enough ventilators to hospitals; help people in financial need; return Brits stranded abroad, and so on; above all, how to deliver 100,00 tests a day by the end of this month.
They do not, however, plan the peace: in other words, when to get out of lockdown and how to do it. We do not say “whether”. That debate, which consumes much media space at present, is irrelevant – or at least beside the point. Which is that in the trade-off between the short-term needs of the NHS, and the virus victims who need it, and the longer-term requirements of the economy, and the fortunes of everyone, the latter eventually trumps the former.
There is a growing assumption at present, fuelled by Neil Ferguson’s recent evidence to the Science and Technology Select Committee, that this moment will come soon – that deaths from the Coronavirus will come in at fewer than the 28,000 or so deaths from flu in 2013-2014. The majority of sources that ConservativeHome speaks to agree, though a minority, some of whom are very well-informed, do not.
Hence the growing protests in the newpapers, whose advertising and sales revenues are collapsing, and the Twitter noise about obstreperous policeman and jobsworth councils. Either way, there are means of weighing the benefits of the shutdown against its costs. Sam Bowman set out one assessment recently in The Critic. His conclusion is well worth noting: that “so far, the shutdown is worth it, and probably would be worth it for some time more”.
When might it no longer be? This takes us back to those four Cabinet committees – with their tactical remit of entering the Coronavirus battlefield, and the lack of a parallel body, which would have the strategic role of planning an eventual exit. It will be claimed that the C-19 committee into which they feed meets that brief. And there are certainly informal networks of Cabinet Ministers who are talking to each other about ending the lockdown.
But everything that this site is told paints a picture of exhausted Ministers and SpAds, some of whom also have the virus themselves, and most of whom talk with each other only remotely, “swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight”. Events are coming at them with the ferocity of crossfire: ventilator sparsity, test shortages, Universal Credit claims, closing businesses – and above all, the pain of the death toll. Plus, now, the absence of Johnson.
Government structures are a dull business. But insiders confirm that Ministers can’t plan properly for ending the shutdown on the present ad-hoc basis, let alone with the Prime Minister now out of action for longer. A formal plan is required. That’s to say, a committee mechanism that draws on commissioned work from the civil service and others to answer our two questions: that’s to say, not whether the lockdown should end, but when and how.
The first one is harder to answer, and Ministers have our sympathy in seeking to find a solution. The art will be to time the end of lockdown so that the return of people to post-Coronavirus normality does not trigger a new upsurge of hospital admissions – thus collapsing the NHS in the wake, if Ferguson is right, of having just saved it. We take it for granted that the sting can partly be drawn by ending the shutdown not with a big bang but a gradual goodbye.
To carry this manoeuvre off, Ministers will be like a man who has to pin the tail on the donkey while it’s moving and he’s blindfolded – with a mob screaming contradictory advice at him throughout. The how is scarcely less daunting, though Liam Fox, in an essay on this site today, sets out two routes: first, a “public health model”, based on testing, and an “economy first model”, whose bedrock is a greatly expanded NHS emergency capacity.
He says of these models that they may overlap, and the same of course applies to our own questions of “when” and “how”. Others will offer different big picture options, but what will count most is getting the grinding detail right. If the return to work, cultural events and education is gradual, on what basis should it be staggered, if a testing route is judged to take too long? By occupation? By area? How would such returns be policed?
What’s the plan if there’s a second wave of the virus? Would the country really accept a second lockdown – a third; a fourth; mini-shutdowns, with all the confusions about norms and rules that they would bring? Should gatherings above a certain size be last to return? And should schools be the first institutions to do so, because parents would then be freed up to work? How is the flood of money from the Chancellor’s statist taps to be turned off?
One might have thought that the Downing Street Policy Unit should be tasked with grappling with these questions. But it is in the nature of the unit that it man-marks departments on behalf of Downing Street, a function that sits uneasily with blue sky thinking. Nick Boles has sketched out some of the main issues, drawing on the work of the American Enterprise Institute. There is a role here for the UK’s own network of think tanks.
Yesterday evening, the country’s mood will first have lightened at the Queen’s broadcast, and then darkened on hearing the news about the Prime Minister’s admission to hospital. This is not the moment to rush into slavering about a stand-in. But the structure that we suggest for planning an exit from the lockdown will need an ultimate decision-maker. That may require further thought. Planning a shutdown exit will need even more.